Trump era ushers in new challenges for venerable paper
Washington Post keeps reinventing itself to stay relevant
JOSHUA OGAWA, Nikkei staff writer
PALO ALTO, U.S. -- In the newsroom at the Washington Post's headquarters, the "paper" side of this storied newspaper in the American capital has all but vanished, transformed by a digital media revolution that now spawns even deeper threats.
Large screens dominate the seventh-floor editorial department in place of proofs and pages, flashing an array of website analytics from visitor tallies to article views. Editors craft stories with one eye on the comings and goings of online readers, working alongside engineers to structure layouts for the smartphone screen.
When Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos acquired the Post in 2013, the news organization was struggling to keep earnings afloat amid a deluge of free online media. Newspapers, long seen as critical infrastructure for a democratic society, seemed to be losing their relevance to fast-moving, disruptive newcomers.
Keeping their edge
The Post charged headlong into this changing landscape. Articles are now pushed to social media services such as Facebook to reach a broader audience. The Post website receives around 100 million visitors per month, three and a half times the level of three years ago. Leasing content management and ad delivery systems to other companies has countered a shortage of advertising revenue.
But the revived Post faces a new challenge: covering Donald Trump's America. The president-elect has shown a remarkable knack for bypassing journalistic outlets such as newspapers and television networks, instead communicating everything from key staff picks to foreign policy points through social media, in particular Twitter.
Political news is the Post's lifeline. But if Trump continues to eschew the traditional press conference, the news organization could lose its edge.
"He is dictating the way he wants a story to go," said Steven Ginsberg, senior politics editor at the Post, referring to Trump. Ginsberg thinks such actions present a threat to a free press. "He's even attacked our owner. That's got to be taken really seriously."
Like it or not, the next president's preferred social media platform could become the internet era's news leader by default.
Need to verify
Yet online platforms, far more than their traditional counterparts, facilitate the spread of inaccurate or outright fake "news," with real-world consequences. A man arrested late last year after firing a gun inside a Washington pizzeria, Comet Ping Pong, said he had come to investigate claims spread through social media that the restaurant was at the center of a human trafficking ring linked to Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party presidential candidate.
"I'm appalled by watching what happened to [Comet owner] James and his employees and how unprotected they are," said Jackie Greenbaum, a Comet regular. "There must be some kind of standards so that people can be protected from this kind of groundless slander."
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has promised measures to curb the spread of fake-news stories on his site. The company has partnered with third-party fact-checking organizations to screen disputed stories and display warnings on those determined to contain false information.
If users of a site lose trust in the content they encounter, the owner can suffer, as Japanese game developer and website operator DeNA learned the hard way. Curated-content sites run by DeNA were found in November to contain inaccurate and plagiarized content. The ensuing uproar knocked more than 100 billion yen ($860 million) off the company's market capitalization.
Just 32% of respondents to a poll by U.S. survey firm Gallup released in September said they had "a great deal" or "a fair amount" of trust in mass media -- the lowest figure since the question was first asked in 1972. Meanwhile, 71% of respondents to a separate survey said social media sites have a responsibility to combat the spread of fake news.
The world of news reporting is undergoing a seismic shift, leaving media outlets grappling with the question of what needs to be changed or kept around. The race to build a cornerstone of a robust democracy in this new landscape has just begun.
Nikkei staff writer Yuji Nitta in Tokyo contributed to this story.